Donald Trump’s refusal to publicly endorse Paul Ryan for his primary next Tuesday didn’t set off the furious infighting yesterday in the GOP, but it did appear to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Talk of interventions arose, and multiple news agencies reported that the RNC had begun to explore its legal options for potentially finding a new nominee, and even his staunchest surrogate called him “unacceptable” at the moment yesterday.
Team Trump has begun to unwind this, starting with the camel’s-back-breaking straw. Mike Pence went out and offered a strong endorsement of Ryan yesterday, claiming that Trump had privately endorsed Pence’s endorsement. This morning, campaign chief Paul Manafort went to ABC’s Good Morning America to offer what can only be called an endorsing non-endorsement:
Donald Trump‘s campaign chairman Paul Manafort acknowledged that “there’s a conflict within the Trump campaign” over the Republican presidential nominee’s hesitation to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin for reelection. But Manafort insisted that the two are “very good friends.”
“Of course he’s trying to bridge the party with Paul Ryan,” Manafort told George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America.” “But Paul Ryan is running against someone who’s not going to win but is a strong supporter of Mr. Trump.”
Manafort makes a good point about presidential campaigns trying to stay out of primary fights, but the circumstances here are a little different. This isn’t a backwater campaign of no national interest. Trump, who is now the putative leader of the Republican Party, does have an interest in whether a Republican Speaker of the House gets returned to Congress next year, especially if Trump wins. Besides, Team Trump held Ryan’s feet to the fire a couple of months ago to get his public support, threatening to remove him as presider over the national convention if Ryan didn’t play ball. Now Trump balks at reciprocating, which raises all sorts of questions about Trump’s intentions about his role as party leader.
This seems to be a way to split the baby well enough to save face with both constituencies. Say nice things about Ryan and acknowledge that Paul Nehlen’s going to lose on Tuesday, but suggest that Trump’s only trying to be loyal to someone who has repeatedly defended him publicly. That Nehlen has done almost slavishly, hoping to score big with the Trump movement in his underdog fight against Ryan in WI-01, and that might even work … if Trump were more popular in Wisconsin. Trump lost big to Ted Cruz in the primary after attacking Republicans like Ryan and Scott Walker, and he lost big in almost every county in WI-01, Ryan’s district. There is little data to be seen in this race, but the polling that has been public shows Ryan cruising to a big win over his challenger.
By Tuesday, the race will be over, and Team Trump can put it in the rear-view mirror without backing down entirely. At this point, they’d better hope that’s the case, or the ire within the GOP is going to turn red-hot.